SystemCrasher (2019), the 69th Berlinale Silver Bear winner, is a wild, intelligent, profoundly compassionate ride through severe childhood psychological damage, an emotional wound that hungers for only one remedy – the unavailable one. A punk rock salute to the painful roots of the antisocial impulse, its tiny protagonist dressed in a shocking pink parka, chewing the scenery, racing against time and her own odds, seething with traumatised rage and frenzied wishful thinking.
It’s a story terrifying and heartbreaking to behold, as it makes us stare in disbelief at a dark matter we rather not have to confront. Perhaps, a sense of abandonment all humans can relate to, but learned how to safely contain.
An astonishingly forceful screen presence, Helena Zengel is the nine-year-old Bernadette, known as Benni, taken away from her single mother into a series of foster families and residential homes due to frequent violent outbursts. Her mother Bianca (convincingly immature and shattered Lisa Hagmeister) is a woman with a history of being in abusive relationships, one of whom we suspect might have damaged Benni. She has two younger children to tend to, and displays an increasingly devastating ambivalence, an affectionate, yet fearful reserve towards her firstborn.
Benni, feeling that absence of emotional consistency in her bones, refuses to accept that she is unwanted, moving heaven and earth (in her own way), just to get back with her mother. Unable to contain any feeling, Benni has an imperious lack of impulse control, becoming what is known as a ‘system crasher’, a term its writer/director Nora Fingscheidt, a seasoned documentary filmmaker (this being her first feature), followed up on with an extensive five-year research after shooting a doc on a refuge for homeless women. These are the children who act up, mostly violently, and to such an extent, with such endurance, that their behaviour is impossible to manage within the existing social welfare framework (in this case, the German one), as they represent a continual hazard to self and others. They tend to disappear through the cracks in an exhaustive process of lifelong fostering inconsistency, lost in a labyrinth of temporary solutions for a problem that still presents an enigma for professionals, and taboo for the public at large.
Benni is charming, manipulative, casually aggressive, and defensive to a dangerous degree, yet can pick up a change of mood a mile away, and knows how to take care of the vulnerable and the small. Every time an adult gets close to soothing her, she turns on them, yet more enraged at what she perceives as their inevitable final betrayal. Benni has a trigger temper, and if anyone touches her face, the consequences are bloody and immediate. In half a sentence spoken as a quick brief, we hear of a childhood trauma Benni suffered, when as a baby nappies were pressed into her face. We are thereby left with that image seared in our minds every time she lashes out and demolishes somebody’s face in retaliation. These, however, all seem to be ghost opponents, as a feverish montage of disturbing memories following each outburst suggests – whether they are schoolyard bullies, or innocent children unfortunate enough to put their hands in Benni’s annihilating way. Taken repeatedly to the children’s psychiatric unit in the aftermath of these events, where she is a familiar presence, Benni’s fed more meds by the competent but essentially helpless medical staff, and then bounced back into the exact same narrative, until she strikes, again.
When her desperate, dedicated social worker, Mrs. Bafané (a warm, steady Gabriela Maria Schmeide), hires an anger-management trainer to accompany her to school, a brooding figure, whose usual charge are young male delinquents, there is finally a force on screen to equal Benni’s. A powerful yet quiet certainty to counterbalance her unbearable erratic noise, Micha (pitch perfect, laser-focused Albrecht Schuch), with a passion for boxing , has a feel of a former Benni who found a way out of the pain, and takes to her, instantly, offering what could be termed an educational retreat in his cabin in the woods.
A valiant, initially successful, but tragically doomed attempt to let her find her own way out, before the system absorbs her, completely.
Inevitably, Benni becomes intensely attached to the one person who can get in beyond the void, and Micha loses the highly necessary professional distance, endangering his own young family. Watching their arc play out as if reflected in the many pieces of bloodied broken glass that serve as constant metaphor throughout the story, is as magnificent, as it is ultimately harrowing. These visible and invisible boundaries are to be destroyed, one by one, in Benni’s quest for freedom, or at least, freedom from anguish, as well, finally, the confining fourth wall, one of the cinema screen, itself.
Beni and Micha’s silent farewell in a frozen field on a misty morning is one of the most psychologically nuanced scenes I’ve ever seen on film. Benni disappearing into the woods, the feral child, after comprehending Micha has given up on her, too, to save his own life. Like her mother.
System Crasher is a social drama that reads like a thriller, its shots crisp, its cuts sharp, with a humanism that is unrepentant, dividing the audience into jailers and jailbreakers, even before they get to grasp what their reaction to this explosive cinematic device reveals about their own psyches.
Author: ©Milana Vujkov